By Andy Parsons
It has been almost seven years since Torquay United graced the Football League, but the Gulls appear to be on an early trajectory to retake their place among the 92 after a brilliant start to the campaign.
Gary Johnson’s arrival has sparked the club into life, guiding them immediately out of the National League South following their relegation in 2018. The Gulls consolidated upon their return to the National League last term, although they did not remain in contention for promotion. It has all changed at the start of the current campaign as Torquay have come out firing on cylinders.
An early setback at the hands of Eastleigh could have threatened to knock them off course. Johnson’s men are now the pacesetters in the division and are backed in the football betting odds at 13/2 to win the National League and secure a spot in League Two next season. They are not the leading contenders as Stockport County and Notts County both have shorter odds than the Gulls.
However, Torquay put down a statement from the off by defeating Stockport on the opening day of the campaign courtesy of a late strike by Connor Lemonheigh-Evans. Their form since then has been flawless outside of their disappointment on the road against Eastleigh. Johnson has cultivated a strong defence and a potent attacking line.
Boasting a strong attack has been one of the key components of past champions from the National League. Barrow were the leading scorers in the division last term, notching 68 strikes from their 37 matches before the season was brought to an end. Leyton Orient were also among the highest scorers in the league in the 2018/19 season. Only Salford City and Harrogate scored more than the O’s 73 goals, while they were also assisted by a watertight defence.
The Gulls are averaging over two goals per game in the early stages of the campaign, which included a 5-0 drubbing of Hartlepool and a 4-1 triumph over Alfreton Town.
Veteran striker Daniel Wright has been extremely potent in the final third, notching six strikes – including a hat-trick in the win over Hartlepool. The 36-year-old has to maintain his form and cannot let his standards drop if Torquay are to remain at the top of the table until the end of the term. A season to match his 2015/16 campaign with Cheltenham, when he notched 22 strikes in their promotion surge, would be welcomed with open arms by Johnson. There are others that could continue to thrive though.
Ben Whitfield has come forward with two goals from the middle of the park and is well on his way to better his tally of six goals from last season. Jake Andrew has been quiet to start the term, but he is more than capable of contributing, notching 15 goals in his first two seasons with the club. Josh Umerah could be a surprise package for the Gulls following his move from Ebbsfleet. He has shown flashes of potential in the National League, but not the consistency. Johnson could be the manager that allows him to unleash his talent on the division.
Torquay have made an exciting start to the campaign and have an experienced campaigner in Johnson to guide them all the way back to the Football League. Their attacking flair has been impressive, while their defensive resilience has been equally outstanding. If the Gulls can sustain their standards over the course of the season their seven-year wait for a return to League Two will certainly be over.